Writers in Residence: How to Visit Where Great American Authors Lived and Worked
Though the best way to engage with great authors of the past is, of course, to read their work, there’s plenty to gain from visiting the places where they lived and scribbled. Touring writers’ preserved homes can help put their books in historical context or fulfill a quasi-religious need to pay homage to artists who speak to us with startling directness across distances and decades. Plus, you should never discount the pleasures of second-guessing the design choices of people you admire (Hemingway may have had a genius for prose, but what kind of dope replaces ceiling fans with chandeliers in Florida?)
Some of our favorite figures in 19th- and 20th-century U.S. literature produced their Great American Novels (and poems and memoirs and works of scholarship) in farmhouses, cabins, mansions, and bungalows that have been carefully preserved for pilgrims and looky-loos from sea to shining sea. Here are 11 writers whose U.S. residences are worth penciling in for your future travels.
Before visiting any of the historic homes below, check their websites for temporary closures affecting interior spaces, tours, and amenities. In some cases, you may need to make advance reservations for timed entry.
Pictured above: Ernest Hemingway's typewriter at his house in Key West, Florida
Mark Twain’s best-known novels were inspired by his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Today, the town's historic district blurs fact and fiction with sites such as Twain’s boyhood residence and Tom Sawyer’s whitewashed fence. But the author wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and other classics more than 1,000 miles east of his beloved Mississippi River.
The Mark Twain House & Museum (pictured above) in Hartford, Connecticut, preserves the Victorian Gothic pile inhabited by Twain and family from 1874 to 1891. The interiors—all carved woodwork and stenciled ceilings—were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s firm. Twain worked in the billiards room on the third floor. Summers were spent with the in-laws at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York (about 300 miles west of Hartford). Twain had a separate, octagonal study that’s now on the grounds of Elmira College. Duck inside the wooden hut to see the original stone fireplace and writing desk at which he produced his inimitable blend of bite, belly laughs, and beauty.
For more information: Visit MarkTwainHouse.org and MarkTwainStudies.com.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass escaped to freedom in 1838 and became one of the country’s leading orators, abolitionists, and memoirists while living in Lynn, Massachusetts (where he wrote his unforgettable first autobiography); Rochester, New York; and, finally, Washington, D.C.
Cedar Hill, the 21-room mansion he purchased in the capital’s Anacostia neighborhood and where he lived his final 17 years, is now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. The hilltop home’s layout suggests the importance of study and social life to the Douglass household. There are two parlors and a big dining room for entertaining guests (Douglass’s chair had wheels so he could dramatize stories better). There are also two spaces for writing and reading: the library (pictured above), in which Douglass composed his last autobiography at the roll-top desk that's still there, and the Growlery, a reconstruction of the separate stone shed used by Douglass for puzzling out ideas in private.
For more information: Visit NPS.gov/FrDo.
Emily Dickinson penned nearly all of her astonishing poems in her modest yet “mighty room” on the second floor of the Amherst, Massachusetts, home where she was born in 1830 and spent just about every minute of her life. Now part of the Emily Dickinson Museum (which also includes the frozen-in-time next-door residence of the poet’s brother and his family), the house has been carefully restored to look as it did in the Dickinsonian days, from the pale yellow exterior to the floral wallpaper in Emily’s bedroom. That unexpected wellspring of revolutionary verse also contains one of the poet’s plain white dresses (equipped with a pocket for holding a pencil and scraps of paper) and her tiny square writing desk facing a window overlooking Main Street.
For more information: Visit EmilyDickinsonMuseum.org.
As in the history-haunted fiction of William Faulkner, the past is palpable and richly layered at Rowan Oak, his Greek Revival home. Built in the 1840s amid a heavily wooded area of Oxford, Mississippi, the house was purchased by the future Nobel winner in 1930 and he lived there until his death in 1962. Past the cedar-lined approach and colonnaded portico, interior spaces retain the marks of the building’s most famous occupant—literally in the writing room, where Faulkner penciled the plot outline of 1954’s A Fable on the walls. He built the bookshelves in the library (pictured above), which is decorated with paintings by his mother, including a portrait of her son over the mantel. Displays of the novelist’s riding boots and photography gear testify to his love of the outdoors.
Take the adjacent Bailey Woods Trail to explore the forested landscape where he sought inspiration. And while you’re in Oxford, sample the college town’s independent bookstores, historic square, and African American heritage sites such as the Burns-Belfry Museum.
For more information: Visit RowanOak.com.
The Cherokee Nation had one of the world's highest literacy rates in the mid-19th century. That's pretty remarkable given that reading and writing in the Cherokee language weren't made possible until the creation of Sequoyah’s syllabary in the early 1820s. The alphabet-like system, based on symbols representing the language’s syllabic sounds, was invented by a Cherokee silversmith-turned-scholar who later built a one-room log cabin in present-day Sallisaw, Oklahoma. The structure remains standing—albeit under a larger brick building put up in the 1930s to protect the cabin from the elements. The spinning wheel inside was actually Sequoyah’s; the other furnishings are historians’ best guesses for what might have been in there. Informational displays relate Sequoyah's far-reaching impact. The leafy, 10-acre park where the cabin sits also has an outdoor bronze statue of Sequoyah, quill and tablet in hand.
For more information: Go to VisitCherokeeNation.com.
By 1960, anthropologist, folklorist, and seminal Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston was all but forgotten when she died, penniless, in Fort Pierce, Florida, on the state’s east coast just south of Saint Lucie. But following the later rediscovery of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and other works, the town where Hurston spent her last three years created a Dust Tracks Heritage Trail connecting many Zora-related addresses, including the Black community newspaper she wrote a column for, the segregated school where she was a substitute teacher, and the 28-square-foot cinderblock house at 1734 Ave. L where she lived starting in 1957. Neighbors said she had a vegetable garden, a dog named Sport, and a back bedroom full of papers (the latter narrowly escaped destruction after her death). The building is privately owned, so you can’t go inside without permission, but you can hear Hurston’s voice and see artifacts at a special exhibit set up at the nearby Agape Senior Recreation Center (809 N. 9th St.).
For more information: Visit CityofFortPierce.com.
You don’t have to be a fan of The Call of the Wild (1903) or any other of Jack London’s adventure novels to appreciate his “Beauty Ranch,” a 1,400-acre expanse that’s now a California state park on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain in Glen Ellen. The bucolic spot encompasses a lake, vineyards, and picturesque stone farm buildings such as a circular tower that was used for storing hog feed but is so stately it was nicknamed the “Pig Palace.”
A planned mansion called Wolf House burned down before it was finished, but you can still poke among the rocky ruins or step inside the wood-framed cottage where London and his wife, Charmian, lived among their papers and art collection until the author died on the sunporch in 1916. His gravesite is on the grounds as well, on a knoll in a wooded spot not far from the remains of Wolf House.
For more information: Visit JackLondonPark.com.
“On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville,” writes Nathaniel Hawthorne in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys (1851), “shaping out the gigantic conception of his 'White Whale,' while the gigantic shape of Graylock looms upon him from his study-window.” That was indeed the scene at Arrowhead, the Berkshires farmhouse where Hawthorne’s clingy friend did indeed finish Moby-Dick (published less than a month before Hawthorne's Wonder-Book) in a messy study from which Mount Greylock (note the correct spelling) can indeed be seen looming in the distance; the porch Melville installed downstairs faces the same view.
The author moved from New York City to rural Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for the peace and quiet, but the dimly lit house was stuffed from bow to stern with Melvilles: Herman, wife Lizzie, their four children, Herman’s mother, and three of his sisters. It’s a wonder the Arrowhead years, 1850–63, were Melville’s most productive. That doesn’t mean they were lucrative, though—the family eventually ran out of money and had to move back to New York.
For more information: Visit BerkshireHistory.org.
Edith Wharton, on the other hand, was never the starving-artist type. In 1903, the keen chronicler and lifelong member of New York City’s upper crust moved with her husband, Teddy, to an enormous estate in Lenox, Massachusetts (about 10 miles south of Melville's Arrowhead). Dubbed The Mount, the 35-room residence and elaborate gardens were in large part designed by the author based on the principles she set down in her 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses. Frequent guest Henry James described the place as a “delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” (The peach-hued dining room is pictured above.)
Wharton wrote The House of Mirth (1905) and Ethan Frome (1911) in her second-floor bedroom, but her favorite space was the wood-paneled library. Her books, covering every subject from God to gardening and filled with annotations in pencil, still line the shelves. Various tours are available, focusing on Wharton, the servants, and resident ghosts.
For more information: Visit EdithWharton.org.
The most flamboyantly screwed-up couple in 20th-century literature blew into Zelda Fitzgerald’s hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1931 for a monthslong stint at the start of a destructive decade that would be characterized by career setbacks, mental crackups, and enough booze to fill Jay Gatsby’s swimming pool several times over. Now converted to the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, the couple’s two-story Montgomery home, where she worked on Save Me the Waltz (1932) while he slogged through Tender Is the Night (1934), is the only one of their extant residences open to the public. Among the items on display: Scott’s writing pen, Zelda’s paper dolls, the couple’s love letters, and a baby grand piano Scott would reportedly play at parties (until he got so drunk he fell off the bench). Temporary exhibits celebrate The Great Gatsby and other works from Scott’s Jazz Age heyday. Diehards can rent the upstairs bedrooms via Airbnb for overnight stays.
For more information: Visit TheFitzgeraldMuseum.org.
Ernest Hemingway’s inability to stay put has been good for the literary tourism economy. Fans can traipse through his birthplace in Oak Park, Illinois, relive A Moveable Feast in Paris, and pay respects at his gravesite in Ketchum, Idaho. Even the home of his second wife’s family in Piggott, Arkansas, has been made into a museum because parts of A Farewell to Arms (1929) were composed during a visit.
But only the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida, where the writer lived in the 1930s, has lots of six-toed cats, so it’s obviously the best. Though the felines are the stars of the show, the two-story Spanish Colonial residence in the city’s Old Town also preserves Hemingway’s writing studio (pictured above), hunting trophies, and in-ground swimming pool—the only one within 100 miles when it was dug. After living here, Hemingway moved to Havana, 105 miles south across the water. Naturally, his home there is now a museum, too.
For more information: Visit HemingwayHome.com.
You may also like our feature Time Capsules: Perfectly Preserved Sites from American History.